Later On

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Archive for November 7th, 2021

The Anthropologists Who Undid Sex, Race, and Gender

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Julia M. Klein,  a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, reviews in Sapiens the book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the 20th Century, by Charles King, published by Doubleday, August 2019. They write:

The anthropologist Franz Boas was, according to Charles King’s new group biography, a cantankerous guy. King describes him as “irascible, stubborn, impatient, and not given to compromise,” as well as “confident to a fault, officious, and given to pique.”

Cranky, for sure, Boas, who lived from 1858 to 1942, was also a crank in the best possible way: His views on race, culture, and the intellectual potential of women diverged radically and presciently from the conventional wisdom of his day.

When Boas began practicing anthropology in the 1880s, after abandoning physics, Western societies generally embraced a hierarchical classification of races and the notion of race and gender as biologically fixed. Thanks to Boas and his circle, anthropologists today reject the belief that social development is linear, moving from “primitive societies” to “civilized ones.”

IGods of the Upper Air, a beautifully written portrait of Boas and some of the diverse women he helped train at Columbia University, King suggests that they transformed anthropology—and Western thought more broadly—by unmooring cultural differences from biology, viewing cultures holistically, and according equal value to non-Western societies.

This book is about women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time,” writes King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, “the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing.”

King profiles Boas’ students Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria. Each one contributed groundbreaking anthropological research. While Mead may be Boas’ most celebrated student, Benedict was Boas’ chief acolyte, as well as Mead’s most enduring love. Hurston became the Harlem Renaissance’s star contrarian, whose 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was rooted in her anthropological fieldwork. Deloria, of Yankton Dakota Sioux and European descent, was “one of the few people [at Columbia] who could claim to be both objective observer and object of study,” writes King.

It’s not readily apparent why Boas—a German-born Jew who became an American citizen—was such a staunch advocate for women. Perhaps it was merely his vaunted empiricism at work. “All my best students are women,” he wrote to a colleague. King suggests that Boas believed: “A science that had access to only half the available data—the practices, stories, and rituals of men—wasn’t worthy of the name.” Presumably, Boas was convinced that women would be better, more intimate observers and chroniclers of their own gender. In any case, his mentorship proved invaluable.

With his encouragement, Hurston, now more celebrated for her fiction, investigated African American communities in the American South and folklore in Jamaica and Haiti. Collaborating with Boas, Deloria did linguistic fieldwork on Native Americans, emphasizing the need to see such communities as living cultures, not just as remnants of a vanished past. “Get nowhere unless prejudices first forgotten. Cultures are many; man is one,” she jotted down, attributing the thoughts to Boas.

Benedict wrote about cultural patterns in different societies and was enlisted by the U.S. government to analyze Japan during World War II. As for Mead, King tells us, she was more interested in the impact of those patterns on individuals. She found support for her own predilections in the societies of the South Seas, whose sexual behavior was less inhibited than in the West. (Her conclusions—about the relatively stress-free adolescence of Samoan girls—would later be both challenged and reaffirmed, a controversy that King stops short of exploring.)

King begins not with Boas but with Mead, whose extraordinary archive is a principal source for Gods of the Upper Air. While her mentor devoted much of his career to attacking contemporary conceptions of race, Mead focused on gender and sexuality, using her exploration of South Seas cultures to question Western moral certitudes about monogamy and traditional male and female roles.

Mead’s own life was a case study in deviation from Western norms. King’s first chapter immerses us in the 23-year-old’s 1925 journey to the Samoan Islands, which would result in her 1928 bestseller, Coming of Age in Samoa. “She had left behind a husband in New York and a boyfriend in Chicago,” King writes, “and had spent the transcontinental train ride in the arms of a woman.” Who wouldn’t want to turn the page after that teaser of an introduction?

One of the usual pitfalls of group biography is the sacrifice of depth to breadth. King can’t hope to match the detail of a solo biography, but he does offer a remarkably intimate portrayal of Mead. While we never learn what factors in her upbringing might have contributed to her propensity for polyamory, we get a powerful glimpse of its emotional fallout, as the thrice-married, thrice-divorced Mead lurches from (overlapping) relationship to relationship.

King also records how, despite their brilliance, these four female protégées of Boas all struggled professionally. They encountered career obstacles based on their ethnicity and/or gender, as well as their avant-garde views. Zigzagging across the country and the world, they also wrestled with self-doubt. “I’m going to get a job giving change in the subway when I get home,” Mead wrote to Benedict in the 1920s.

Gods of the Upper Air serves as both a bracing history of the development of anthropology in the U.S. and . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 5:48 pm

No Accountability in Military Probe of Kabul Drone Strike — but Intelligence Failures Laid Bare

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Murtaza Hussein reports in The Intercept:

THE AUGUST 29 attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed Zemari Ahmadi, an innocent aid worker, and his family has become one of the most notorious drone strikes of the war on terror. It is also rapidly becoming one of the most revealing, forcing the U.S. government to disclose more about how it makes decisions about killing people in foreign countries by remote control, using aircraft high in the sky. The Kabul attack generated intense scrutiny from the moment it was launched, after journalists on the ground quickly contradicted the government narrative about who had been killed. What is now being revealed is that the evidence that can be used to carry out fatal strikes — like the one that killed Ahmadi and his family — is often razor thin.

A one-page summary of the findings of an internal investigation of the strike, led by Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, claimed that no violations of the laws of war had been committed and did not recommend that anyone be criminally disciplined for the killing of Ahmadi and his family. Said’s report concluded that the fatal strike was executed due to a mixture of “confirmation bias and communications breakdowns” — errors that occurred during an eight-hour period when Ahmadi was under aerial surveillance. Said did not share specific intelligence that had put Ahmadi into the sights of U.S. drones but suggested that certain actions — like picking up a laptop bag and driving a Toyota Corolla, common on the roads of Afghanistan — were enough for drone operators to justify pulling the trigger and killing him and his family in front of their home.

The U.S. military has not released its own video footage of the attack, which it insisted initially showed a successful strike that had hit a car carrying a suicide bomber. Officials also claimed at first that their footage showed secondary explosions pointing to a “substantial amount of explosive material” in the car that they had hit. These claims turned out to be false. A combination of reporting from the ground, made easier by Kabul’s status as a hub for international media and open-source intelligence work carried out by foreign reporters, established that not only were claims of major secondary explosions implausible, but the U.S. had also killed a man who was a longtime aid worker for a U.S.-based NGO, just as his children were rushing to his car to greet him.

DURING A press briefing Thursday, Said was asked about reports that U.S. forces were looking for a white Toyota Corolla, considered the most common vehicle on the roads of Afghanistan, which led them to attack Ahmadi. “We actually never ended up tracking the actual Toyota Corolla,” Said said. “It certainly wasn’t the one we did track and struck. We just didn’t pick up the Toyota Corolla that we believe we should have picked up that might have been involved in something that’s worth knowing.” Said also described the strike as “unique” in comparison to the thousands of other strikes that the U.S. has carried out, citing the context of a deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that had occurred days before, in the heat of a messy U.S. withdrawal, and statements from President Joe Biden at the time that another attack was believed to be imminent.

Analysts who track these strikes say that there were aspects to the Ahmadi killing that made it different from other attacks, in which drone operators have time to carry out extended “pattern-of-life” analysis on subjects to confirm their identities.

“The backdrop of this strike was that there was intelligence gathered to suggest that ISIS was threatening the airport, there was an attack there previously, and the president himself was saying that we expect another attack to take place imminently,” said Micah Zenko, a political scientist and expert on the U.S. drone program. “It created a condition where external pressures are going to lead people to think a certain way — everyone is primed to look for another car bomb. Once you prime people like that, and you reduce the timeframe to make a judgement, it can lead to all types of mental shortcuts.”

The summary report issued by Said laid out several recommendations for avoiding future such incidents, including taking steps to reduce confirmation bias in targeting, improving situational awareness through communication, and reviewing pre-strike procedures to protect civilians. Zenko says that these recommendations have been made many times before after similar incidents. The real issues — faulty intelligence and policy decisions that lead to such killings taking place — remain unaddressed.

“They never look at the big picture,” said Zenko. “It’s never a weaponeering problem and is almost always an intelligence assessment problem that leads to these incidents. That’s what makes it so hard to assess, because it deals with the part of the process that they will never talk about: the intelligence.”

The U.S. government has been militant about protecting the drone program from scrutiny, making accurate assessments about intelligence failures hard to confirm. When information has leaked, such as the classified 2015 disclosures from the program published by The Intercept, it has shown a program that is far less discriminating and targeted than has been advertised. One leaked document showed that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 4:59 pm

In Honduras Land Battles, Paramilitaries Infiltrate Local Groups — Then Kill Their Leaders

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Jared Olson reports in The Intercept:

DANIEL GARCÍA FIRST received the text message, which showed the muzzle of an AK-47 above a blurry road, at 7:30 p.m. “You’re alive because God is great and powerful,” the sender wrote, “but I don’t think you’ll have the same luck this week. I’ll see you soon, love.”

García knew the message was serious. Rumor had it he’d been placed on a kill list of five land rights activists in Honduras. The first of the five, his friend Juan Manuel Moncada, had been assassinated just four days earlier.

At around 10 o’clock that night, the presumed messengers made good on their threat: Four or five men with balaclavas, bulletproof vests, and AK-47s rolled up on motorcycles and surrounded García’s property, where they proceeded to chat and smoke cigarettes while looking over the barbed wire fence into his adobe-walled house. García lay inside, paralyzed with fear.

He said they looked like soldiers. But they weren’t. They were paramilitaries who, in a resurgent campaign of violence and aggression that began this summer, have been targeting a land rights cooperative trying to protect land it retook from a corporate palm oil giant.

“When you see a soldier show up in front of your house,” García said of the July encounter, “you realize they aren’t a soldier, they’re there to murder you.”

Honduras’s Hot Zone

García lives in the community of Panamá, in the Bajo Aguán Valley, a “hot zone” notorious as one of the country’s most militarized regions. Land conflicts in the Aguán date back to the early 1990s, when Dinant, a Central American transnational and consumer goods corporation specializing in African palm oil production, began buying off collective farmlands, ultimately obtaining a majority of farmlands in the region. The purchases were carried out in an environment of killings, disappearances, and death threats against campesino or rural leaders and were contested by human rights workers, journalists, and the farmers themselves.

After a 2009 U.S.-backed military coup, many campesinos reoccupied the farms — spurring a campaign of largely targeted assassinations by private security guards and Honduran security forces that left over 150 farmers dead. In 2014, international pressure momentarily put the brakes on the killing spree by disparate armed actors, opening a new era of conflict in which well-organized paramilitary groups became the main drivers of violence. Leading the two largest groups were a former soldier and a private guard who previously provided security for Dinant, with other former soldiers, police officers, and private security guards among their ranks.

The paramilitaries’ strategy begins with infiltrating social movements, killing off key members, and then installing armed groups inside communities to terrorize their residents into exile or silence, according to eyewitness testimony, interviews with more than a dozen local residents, and affidavits made on behalf of asylum-seekers in the U.S. If successful, the armed groups will extinguish land rights movements and seize back control of the palm oil lands Dinant claims as its own.

Residents of the Aguán valley say the military is complicit in the paramilitary violence. Some residents claim that the military has armed the paramilitaries, while others argue that the military, given its omnipresence in the region, is at minimum aware of the paramilitary units and has done little to stop their violence.

Those suspicions were inflamed after photos began circulating on social media of a paramilitary leader at an event with Honduran soldiers in the Aguán this spring: “The context of the photos is what we’ve been submitting complaints [to the authorities] about already,” said Hipólito Rivas, a local activist who’s faced death threats from the armed group, “that as the head of the paramilitary group, we confirmed that he has support from the Army.”

Honduran special forces had already been entangled with a paramilitary group that infiltrated a farmer organization in the village of La Confianza in the mid-2010s, according to an affidavit from a human rights worker that two Hondurans submitted as part of their applications for asylum in the U.S. The affidavit details how a former special forces officer, Celio Rodríguez, joined land rights movements, including MUCA (“Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán,” per its Spanish acronym), and then rose to a leadership position under the pretense he’d protect communities from violence. But he turned out to be organizing a paramilitary death squad. The members of Grupo de Celio, as it is known, were frequently seen in contact with an active-duty special forces commander named German Alfaro, who was the head of the Xatruch, an elite military police task force, and then later FUSINA, another special forces unit active in the Aguán, according to the affidavit. Grupo de Celio was also seen doing military training on a palm plantation with soldiers and a well-known assassin named Osvin Caballero, now in prison on account of several high-profile murders. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 4:49 pm

U.S. Absolves Drone Killers and Persecutes Whistleblowers

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The true crime is to expose a crime, at least in an authoritarian organization. Jeremy Scahill reports in The Intercept:

AFTER THE TERRORIST attack on the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, that killed more than 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers, President Joe Biden issued a warning to fighters from the Islamic State. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said on August 26. Three days later, Biden authorized a drone strike that the U.S. claimed took out a dangerous cell of ISIS fighters intent on staging another attack on the Kabul airport. 

Biden held up this strike, and another one a day earlier, as evidence of his commitment to take the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan even as he declared an end to the 20-year war there. “We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our service members and dozens of innocent Afghans,” he said in a White House speech. “And to ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet.”

But the Kabul strike, which targeted a white Toyota Corolla, did not kill any members of ISIS. The victims were 10 civilians, seven of them children. The driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, was a respected employee of a U.S. aid organization. Following a New York Times investigation that fully exposed the lie of the U.S. version of events, the Pentagon and the White House admitted that they had killed innocent civilians, calling it “a horrible tragedy of war.”

This week, the Pentagon released a summary of its classified review into the attack, which it originally hailed as a “righteous strike” that had thwarted an imminent terror plot. The results were predictable. The report recommended that no personnel be held responsible for the murder of 10 civilians; there was no “criminal negligence,” as the report put it. The fact that the U.S. military spent eight hours surveilling the “targets,” that a child could be seen in its own footage minutes before the strike — this was written off as a fog-of-war moment. The operators conducting the strike “had a genuine belief that there was an imminent threat to U.S. forces,” asserted the Air Force’s inspector general, Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said.

They committed a mistake, he said, not a crime.

The U.S. has promised to pay restitution to the survivors of the drone strike. This is part of a long-standing U.S. tradition to treat its widespread killings of civilians in the so-called war on terror as innocent mistakes made in pursuit of peace and security. The general who conducted the review says he has made recommendations on how to tinker with targeted killing operations to reduce the likelihood of other honest mistakes (as the Pentagon regards them) that wipe out entire families.

NONE OF THIS is new. It is a cycle that got into high gear under President Barack Obama (when Biden was vice president), continued during the Donald Trump presidency, and is not relenting in the Biden era.

As the Pentagon absolves itself of this crime, the Biden administration is pushing ahead with its persecution of whistleblowers who exposed this system of killing innocents. Daniel Hale, a military veteran who pleaded guilty to disclosing classified documents that exposed lethal weaknesses in the drone program, is serving four years in prison. (Prosecutors said those documents formed the basis for The Drone Papers, a series of investigative articles published by The Intercept.) Among other revelations, Hale’s documents exposed how as many as nine out of 10 victims of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan were not the intended targets. In Biden’s recent drone strike, 10 of 10 were innocent civilians.

While Hale was indicted under the Espionage Act during Trump’s tenure, Biden’s Justice Department has gone after him with a vengeance. In October, Hale was inexplicably transferred to a “Communications Management Unit” at the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion in southern Illinois. CMUs are used to severely limit a prisoner’s ability to communicate with the outside world, subject them to extreme periods of isolation, and allow for intensified surveillance of their communications and visits. CMUs are regularly labeled as “terrorist units.”

And as the Pentagon’s mountain of lies about . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 4:37 pm

Just how horrible and incompetent has Joe Biden been?

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Kevin Drum has a little list:

In the space of ten months, Joe Biden has:

  • Passed a $1.9 trillion COVID assistance bill.
  • Presided over a massive vaccination campaign that’s been successful despite shameless partisan opposition.
  • Withdrawn all US troops from Afghanistan with minimal American casualties.
  • Passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
  • Gotten very close to passing a historic $2 trillion safety net bill.

Just sayin’.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 2:16 pm

To reinvent work, we must destroy the clock

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Mark Dent writes in The Hustle:

On one end of the spectrum, there is Elon Musk. On the other end, there is Iceland. 

Musk, like many celebrity CEOs, works a lot of hours. He once bragged about spending 120 hours a week in the factory to supercharge Tesla’s production. After that made him “bonkers,” he toned it down to around 80 hours. 

Iceland recently shared the results of its workforce switching from 40-hour workweeks to 35 or 36 hours, finding the workers were just as productive. 

What if both are getting it wrong? 

Whether it’s the grueling approach of Musk or the leaner approach of Iceland, hours and structure are how we typically measure work, even though the relationship of time to success makes little sense.

“Everybody is aware that time is a poor substitute, but we’ve taken up the assumption that our output is proportional to hours,” John Pencavel, a Stanford economist, told The Hustle.

The pandemic has accelerated conversations about remote work, hybrid scheduling, and 4-day workweeks (an idea that has been trotted out since at least the 1970s and never stuck). But some scholars propose a more radical alternative to time-based work: destroying the clock altogether and just getting stuff done. 

That means working when we’re at our best, and around our family and health priorities, instead of from 9 to 5, or 8 to 6, or longer to try to impress our boss.

Obviously, not every job can be measured by task: Cashiers at stores, servers in restaurants, and nurses working night shifts, for instance, will always have to hew to some type of timed schedule to accommodate customers or patients. 

Nor are we suggesting America is ready for an economy in which Amazon employees — already tasked with strenuous labor — are paid solely by the number of shelves they stock in lieu of a guaranteed wage or salary.   

For this article, we’re focusing on jobs in the information economy, where the setting and hours of many people’s jobs have been in flux for the last 20 months.

When someone asks us how many hours we work every week, we should all have the same answer: I don’t know. 

Why time is bad for many professions 

When the 40-hour week was standardized in 1938 through the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act, it was a huge victory for reformers and labor unions. They had fought for years to ensure better wages and realistic schedules for workers. 

Much of the work done by Americans in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in the automobile industry, was based around the assembly line. One person’s output was largely dependent on another’s. Time was the most sensible option for measuring work.

In the last half of the 20th century, the economy saw dramatic shifts. Between 1910 and 2015:

  • Manufacturing jobs declined from 32% to 8% of all nonfarm employment.
  • White-collar jobs (professional services, government, finance, and education) increased from 11% to 53%. 
Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

“Fundamentally, for much of the work that we do today, time is irrelevant,” Tammy Erickson, a consultant and longtime evangelist of task-based work, told The Hustle. “It doesn’t really matter.” 

“For example, if I’m a client for an accountant, I want to have my annual report done well, however many hours it took your team to do that,” she said. “I don’t care if it took them a zillion hours or 10 hours. I want a good annual report.”

Yet the focus on time has stayed the same, particularly on conflating longer hours with better performance.

From 1979 through 2004, college-educated men in white-collar jobs drove an increase in the share of employees working 50 or more hours per week after nearly continuous declines for the previous century, and they were given more opportunities and higher salaries

Using results over time has worked

To think about why time doesn’t matter, look no further than someone like Kevin Durant.

He and other star athletes are evaluated based on performance, on points and assists and other metrics, not on how many hours they spend honing their craft in the gym or how long their games last. 

But there’s also a famous example in a traditional white-collar setting: Best Buy. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 1:47 pm

The Shorter Work Week Really Worked in Iceland. Here’s How

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Virginia Lau and Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir report in TIME:

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic forced companies around the world to reimagine the workplace, researchers in Iceland were already conducting two trials of a shorter work week that involved about 2,500 workers—more than 1% of the country’s working population. They found that the experiment was an “overwhelming success” —workers were able to work less, get paid the same, while maintaining productivity and improving personal well-being.

The Iceland research has been one of the few large, formal studies on the subject. So how did participants pull it off and what lessons do they have for the rest of the world? Bloomberg News interviewed four Icelanders, who described some of the initial problems that accompanied changed schedules, yet they were helped by their organizations which took concerted steps like introducing formal training programs on time-management to teach them how to reduce their hours while maintaining productivity.

The trials also worked because both employees and employers were flexible, willing to experiment and make changes when something didn’t work. In some cases, employers had to add a few hours back after cutting them too much. Iceland did the trials partly because people were reporting relatively long working hours, averaging 44.4 hours per week—the third highest of Eurostat countries in 2018.

Participants in the Iceland study reduced their hours by three to five hours per week without losing pay. While the shorter work hours have so far largely been adopted in Iceland’s public sector, workers and managers used simple techniques to maintain productivity while cutting back on time in the office. As employees from Silicon Valley to Wall Street look for better ways to balance work and life, here are tips from four Icelanders.

Read more: Spain Is Going to Trial a 4-Day Work Week. Could the Idea Go Mainstream Post-Pandemic?

As director of capital Reykjavik’s Land and Operation agency, Hjalti Guðmundsson manages a team of about 140 people. Most of them work outdoors, on tasks like road maintenance, cleaning streets and gardening. Before starting the trial in 2016, employees worked long hours, usually from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. or later, though work from 3:30 p.m. onwards was counted as overtime.

Since the organization has different work sites, he was able to experiment with two different models simultaneously. At some sites, four of the five work days were shortened by an hour, allowing staff to finish at 4 p.m. At others, staff worked regular hours Monday to Thursday, and a half day on Friday. Salaries were unchanged, with written agreements between employers and employees. And at the end of the trial, staff voted for their preferred model as a permanent arrangement. The result was clear – more than 90% of workers wanted to shorten their work day by one hour four days a week.

“It didn’t surprise me that they wanted to do that, because if you work from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the last hour between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. are not very productive,” explains Guðmundsson. “Contrarily, I think we’ve gained productivity, not only by this hour. But people are more willing to do their jobs in the active work time.”

Those who worked in an office had shorter meetings. Those who worked on site spent less time going to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy, as fewer sick days were reported. Workers reported having more time to spend with their families and on hobbies. Many appreciated gaining an extra hour of daylight, especially during the winter.

Guðmundsson himself has  . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more.

See also the results when the experiment tried in the US in the 1930s. It worked, but corporations didn’t like it, so it didn’t happen.

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 1:07 pm

Why English Might Drop “He” and “She”

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Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, posted an interesting and — to me — convincing essay in Sapiens, advancing the proposition that third-person pronouns should join first-person pronouns (I, we, me, us, my, our) and second person pronouns (you, your) in dropping gender specificity.

I had assumed that the first-person and second-person pronouns did not indicate gender because, given that the person is present, indicating gender would be redundant. It is foolish, however, to draw inferences about languages in general by looking at a single language. Boellstorff writes in an email:

Note there are languages with gendered second-person pronouns (Arabic, Minangkabau, etc.). So while this might seem redundant, note languages have redundancy all the time. And many languages — like Turkish, Indonesian, et al. — use the equivalent of “one house, two house, three house” because saying “houses” is redundant when the plural is already obvious from the number two, three, etc., but the redundancy is the norm in English.

I’m a traditionalist in language. I cling to “data” as a plural (“datum” being the singular) and insist that “who” be “whom” when it is the object of a preposition or verb — and I’ll continue to fight against using the accusative case after conjunctive words (“than,” “as”) in constructions like “I am older than he” or “they are stronger than we.”

I also stick to using “so” instead of “as” when used in a negative context: “I am as strong as you, but not so strong as they.” (Most people, I’ve observed, do not follow that rule, but I like it.) I learned of it from an anecdote about Walter Lippmann’s becoming enraged when a reporter used “as” after a negative instead of “so.” I find I enjoy following the rule. YMMV.

So I am somewhat of a stick-in-the-mud wrt English usage, but even so I find myself nodding in agreement with Boellstorff when they write in this essay:

Pronouns are giving us trouble.

English speakers face a dilemma. The current structure of our language is exclusionary with regard to gender: The personal pronouns “she” and “he” don’t represent all the ways people see themselves. Having only these two options excludes trans individuals, those who identify as nonbinary, and others who don’t identify as female or male.

One popular current solution is to express preferred personal pronouns: Someone explains, verbally or in writing, a preference for she, he, they, and so on (for clarity, I’ll underline the pronouns discussed in this piece). This is a vast improvement over nondeclaration, but it has limitations. Personalized gender pronouns don’t fundamentally challenge gender exclusion; in some respects, they further it.

The more radically inclusive option is to eliminate preferred personal pronouns (including she and he) in favor of a nongendered or epicene pronoun (the word “epicene” comes from a root meaning “common”). An epicene pronoun doesn’t mark gender. For instance, in English you isn’t a feminine or masculine pronoun; it’s an epicene pronoun. I think the best replacement for he and she is they.

To be clear, I’m proposing turning English into an epicene language, altering it structurally, at its “root,” rather than tweaking the “leaves” of individual speakers. This would mean scrapping he and she altogether in favor of they, rather than picking and choosing based on circumstance or preference.

This might sound difficult. But there are plenty of other languages that already do this. English itself has made similar alterations in the past, and there are signs that the shift is already happening without anyone particularly noticing or complaining. English is actually very nearly gender neutral. All it needs is one final push to get it over the line.

Language isn’t just a set of labels to identify things: It shapes how we see the world and is a way of acting in the world. Nor is it static: It changes with shifting times. We must now intentionally transform English to make it gender inclusive.

As a queer and linguistic anthropologist, I’m inspired by social movements, from feminism to disability justice, that have changed language for everyone.

The word Latinx, for example, emerged in the English language around 2004 as a gender-neutral replacement for the Spanish “Latino” and “Latina.” “Chairman” has become “chairperson.” The word “disabled” is now preferred over historical terms such as “crippled.” These shifts have not generally been seen as a matter of individual preference but rather a pervasive language change, even if the specific words used are contested.

Continue reading. There’s more.

One quibble: “Thou” was used to denote intimacy, and of course immediate assumption of intimacy with a stranger connotes that the stranger is an inferior. The use of French tu and vous reflects that: “tu” is used both for intimates (one’s spouse or children) and in addressing those of lower social class when emphasizing the difference in status (see this article on tutoyer), as a patron of a shop might address a shop clerk using “tu” and expect the shop clerk to respond with “vous.”

The Old South offers another example of using language that connotes familiarity to hammer home a difference in socioeconomic class status. Whites addressed Blacks by using their first name (as one addresses children), but Blacks were required to address Whites as children addressed adults: using the appropriate honorific (Mr., sir, Mrs. or Miss (though often Ms. was used, at that time spelled phonetically as “Miz”), sir, ma’am, and the like).

So when Boellstorff writes “Through a historical process, you additionally became honorific, and thou came to imply lower status,” I immediately object. “Thou” can imply lower status — when used to address people where assuming intimacy is an affront — but it continues to denote intimacy (and not lower status) when addressing, for example, God. One assumes that God’s status is quite high indeed — and yet often prayers still address Them as “Thou” — as in this hymn:

Shepherd divine, thou leadest me
Where the still waters gently flow;
In pastures fair thou feedest me;
I trust thy love, no want I know.

I think we can agree that in this hymn no disrespect or presumption of lower status is intended by the use of “thou.”

I also think Boellstorff is right when they say that one should use the plural verb when using “they” to refer to an individual person. Keeping the example of “you” in mind (and how it replaced “thou”) is quite helpful: it’s exactly analogous. “You” is used for both singular and plural, though the verb is maintained as plural. (One does see an effort to claw back a specifically plural sense in the construction “y’all” (in the South) or “youse” (in New Jersey), which are plural forms.)

From now on, I’ll follow their usage suggestions, and “he,” “she,” “him,” “her,” and “his” will join “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” in the dustbin of history, and let “they” join “you” in not specifying gender or number. If not I, then who? If not now, then when?

BTW, it’s interesting that “you,” which does not specify gender, not only erased singular and plural distinctions but also case distinctions, just as “it” does: both “you” and “it” have no accusative form. One may speak to “me” or “us” or “them,” but one speaks to “you” — not to “youm.” “Who” may be inching along the trail blazed by “you,” but I for one will continue to fight against it.

I should note that having no accusative form for the second person is language-specific. Esperanto, for example, does have an accusative form for the second person: “vi” = “you” and “vin” is the accusative. (Esperanto grammar is regular, so the accusative is always formed by appending “n”: “mi” = “I” so “me” = “min,” “ili” = “they” so “ilin” = “them,” “ĉevalo” = “horse” (nominative) so “ĉevalon” = “horse” (accusative).)

(James Thurber had a good essay on the proper use of “whom.”)

Update: It occurs to me that some people — for example, people who are gender-insecure — might want to be referred to by gender-specific pronouns. Thus, we might end up using “they/them/their” as a general rule, but on special request use “he/him/his” or “she/her/her.”

This sort of usage — a gender neutral word along with gender-specific equivalents — is true of some nouns: “horse/stallion/mare,” for example, or “chicken/cock (or rooster)/hen” or “peafowl/peacock/peahen” or “donkey/jack/jenny.”

Written by Leisureguy

7 November 2021 at 10:38 am

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